I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach. I had just shared in a small group meeting that I felt God was leading me toward greater discipline in a few areas of my life.
But the leader of the group did one of those “YesButs.” You know the kind. Technically they are agreeing with you, but really they are correcting you. “Yes, but…”
This well-meaning leader felt it necessary to remind me (and the whole group) that it was all about God’s grace, and we can’t make God love us any more or less through our obedience.
We moved on quickly to the next person, and I was left feeling discouraged. I really did feel God was leading me toward putting some effort into my faith, but whenever I shared these kinds of thoughts, it seemed that people would nervously talk about grace and change the subject.
Grace or effort: pick your poison
Their anxiety about this topic is understandable. A prevailing popular theology of our day seems to offer us only two choices when it comes to God’s grace and our effort.
- “It’s all about grace, so relax.” This option would have us embrace the fact that we can do nothing to deserve our salvation, and therefore any and all effort put into the life of faith puts you in danger of “works righteousness.”
- “It’s all about effort, so get busy.” This is the “works righteousness” option that the grace folks are scared of. Any and all talk of God’s free forgiveness is suspiciously labeled “cheap grace” and discarded.
(By the way, it says something significant about us as a society that the only possible motivation we can imagine for putting effort into our faith is to “earn” something.)
I’ve seen people swing between these two extremes their whole life. One season they’re working like maniacs to be “better Christians.” Next they’re shrugging at everything and abandoning every recognizable Christian discipline in the name of “grace.”
This view of grace dominates our imaginations to the point that we cannot fathom how grace and effort could possibly work together. They feel like opposites on a sliding scale, so that any move toward effort is a move away from grace.
[tweet “Many people assume that any move toward effort is a move away from grace.”]
This is why the leader of my small group felt it necessary to warn us all off the ledge when I mentioned a desire to becoming more disciplined in my faith. He saw no other way of understanding what I was saying except that I was sliding toward legalism.
Doomed to be merely forgiven
If we are going to embrace God’s grace, then, it seems we are doomed to be “just forgiven,” as a popular bumper sticker proudly proclaims. But doesn’t it seem like there ought to be more to following Jesus than just forgiveness?
[tweet “It would seem that if we are going to embrace God’s grace, we are doomed to be ‘just forgiven.'”]
Greg Boyd shares a story that illustrates this conundrum very well. It’s such a good example that I’m going to share it in its entirety:
About 25 years ago I was traveling on the freeway to somewhere or other and I stopped at a truck stop to get a bite to eat. I sat down at the counter next to this scruffy truck driver who had just started his lunch, and we started up a friendly conversation. Within about fifteen minutes the man was bragging to me that he was strung out on cocaine, that he had had great sex with a girl he met in a bar the night before, that this sort of thing typically happened a couple times a week, and that his live-in girl friend of seven years pretends not to know about it because her two kids needed a dad. He seemed to think this was funny.
When he’d finished his colorful monologue, he asked me what I do for a living, to which I responded that I was a pastor.
His immediate response was, “Oh sh*t!”
He quickly apologized, telling me I didn’t look or act anything like the pastors he knew. “You should wear a collar or robe or something to warn people,” he said. I assured him I had no interest in judging him, since I myself am simply a forgiven sinner. I then told him he too could be forgiven and transformed by the love of God if he entered into a relationship with Jesus Christ. His response was rather interesting.
“Oh, I know about all that pastor,” he said. “I’ve already accepted Jesus as my savior.” “That’s great,” I said, trying not to sound surprised. “Yes sir,” he said. “My grandma had me go forward and pray the sinners prayer when I was five.”
The trucker then explained that he gave up on religion in his early teenage years, but he never forgot that, because he’d accepted Jesus, “God doesn’t see my sin any more.” I inquired how that worked – an all-knowing God unable to see something. “God sees me through ‘Jesus spectacles!’” he exclaimed, almost in a southern preacher’s voice. “He doesn’t see my sin; he sees the blood of Jesus!”
How could something as wonderful as salvation be so utterly powerless and uninspiring? Yet this is the often unspoken conflict happening in the minds of Christians when talk of discipleship or mission comes up.
How grace and effort work together
The thing that the trucker (and a lot of us) have wrong is that God’s grace and our effort were meant to work together.
[tweet “God’s grace and our effort are meant to work together.”]
I find Dallas Willard’s phrase very helpful here: “Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.”
Earning is an attitude, while effort is simply action. Embracing grace means we know that we haven’t earned a thing in our relationship with God. But that doesn’t mean we don’t take action!
In fact, it seems we need to take action if we are going to remain inside the grace being offered to us.
“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13).
Did you catch that? “Work out your salvation… for it is God who works in you…” It’s grace and effort working TOGETHER! God’s action and ours together to create action and desire that fulfills God’s good purposes for us.
“Contrary to the grace versus ‘works righteousness’ dichotomy that became popular after the Reformation, it takes a lot of practice to remain fully open to undeserved and unmerited grace.” – Richard Rohr
A diagram may help. Since grace is not opposed to effort, the line diagram above doesn’t work. Instead, grace is opposed to earning. Effort, then, is simply opposed to no effort.
We can look at it this way:
In other words, when it comes to following Jesus, “You can’t do it alone, but it will not be done for you.”
[tweet “When it comes to following Jesus, you can’t do it alone, but it will not be done for you.”]
You need both grace and effort to follow Jesus. Both ingredients are vital in spiritual formation. Without God’s grace, there’s no hope! But without effort, all the potential will lie dormant. Growth simply doesn’t happen unless you embrace both.
Let’s examine how the quadrants of this tool function.
No grace, no effort = hiding/shame
When we have a sense that we need to earn our salvation, but out of fear we take no action, we find ourselves in a place of deep shame.
We’re officially legalists (since we feel we must earn salvation), but we’re not even trying. So we hide in shame. People typically don’t live here for very long because it crushes your soul. Eventually they find their way into one of the other quadrants…
Effort without grace = legalism/performance
When we believe we need to earn salvation, and also believe we can earn salvation, we take action. But the attitude with which we take action is one of earning.
We trust our efforts to earn us something. We depend on our action, rather than the grace of God.
Eventually we begin to feel that we deserve things because of our faithful performance. While there is nothing wrong with the efforts themselves, when our attitude shifts to feeling we have earned something through them, we become like the elder son in Jesus’ parable.
We exclude ourselves from the party because we can’t participate in unmerited grace. We’re hard-working legalists, earning every penny of salvation from God.
Grace without effort = unfruitful/unproductive
If we believe there’s nothing we can do to earn salvation (grace), but never put any effort into our faith, we end up unfruitful and “unproductive,” in the words of the apostle Peter.
In his second letter, he emphasizes grace and effort together (just like Jesus, just like Paul… it’s all over the place!).
- “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life…” (2 Peter 1:3)
- “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith…” (2 Peter 1:5)
Out of his grace God provides all we need for a godly life, but to make it effective in our life, it’s necessary to “make every effort” to add to our faith!
Peter tells us the reason we add to our faith is that it will “keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:8).
In other words, it’s possible to be ineffective and unproductive in your faith. How? By embracing grace but never putting any effort into training.
[tweet “It is possible to be ineffective and unproductive in your faith. But why would you want to be?”]
This is the plight of the younger son in Jesus’ parable. He knew his inheritance belonged to him, but he squandered it because he made no effort to learn how to invest it wisely or productively.
Ineffectiveness and unproductivity don’t disqualify you from grace. You’re still part of the family. But unfruitful and unproductive members of a household are called children. Children are wonderful, but their purpose is to grow up and become mature, effective, productive adults.
Grace and effort together = fruitful and productive
When we embrace the attitude of grace (“I deserve none of this goodness!”), and combine that with wise and disciplined effort (“work out your salvation”/”add to your faith”), we find ourselves fruitful and productive.
- Grace tells me I deserve none of this, but God is doing it for me anyway, because he loves me.
- And effort tells me that unless I take action, God’s grace will remain ineffective in my life.
How to start embracing grace AND effort
If you tend to be a legalist, your top priority will be to learn to embrace the grace that embraces you. You’ll need to believe with all your heart that you can’t do it alone.
Here are some ways to begin:
- When confronted with your own weakness and failure, resist the temptation to hide it or fix it. Instead, embrace it as the truth and confess it to someone.
- When you hurt others, resist the temptation to defend yourself or deflect the blame. Instead apologize simply and sincerely. Welcome their forgiveness.
- Begin your day by writing or speaking out 10 things you are thankful for. As you thank God for them, realize that you deserve none of them; they are gracious gifts from God.
Here are a couple great books that will help you embrace grace:
- The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brendan Manning
- The chapter on the Beatitudes in Dallas Willard’s magnificent book The Divine Conspiracy.
On the other hand, if you tend to be unproductive, your top priority will be to learn to embrace effort as the pathway toward fruitfulness.
Here are some ways to begin:
- Resist the temptation to think of effort as earning. Think of it instead as simply “activating” the grace that God has freely given you. This is why the best athletes are always those who combine their natural ability (undeserved grace) with rigorous training (effort).
- Learn how spiritual disciplines work. The way we put forth effort in our faith is not by direct effort, but by indirect effort. For example, we can’t love our enemies by trying harder. But if we learn to practice silence and solitude, over time we’ll find ourselves more easily loving our enemies and everyone else because we have made an effort to “hold our souls open” to God so he can transform us.
Here are the two best books I’ve read on spiritual discipline:
I’d love to hear from you. Where do you lean? What do you need to embrace? Let’s go for the top-right quadrant, working out our salvation, because it’s God who’s working within us.
That quote by Dallas Willard is so powerful. Seeing this as a quadrant, and not a line, is tremendously helpful. I can really see how this will make a difference in the way I talk with people about God’s grace. I’m more strongly drawn towards grace (I’m also very high-invitation), but appreciate the distinction you made between effort and earning. I think I shied away from effort in a weird attempt to not confuse God into thinking that I thought I could handle it on my own. Pretty presumptuous of me to think I could confuse God! Thanks for the encouraging, enlightening words!
TheMrsRockstar What a great realization that you were attempting not to confuse God! I love stuff like that. Blessings!
Pr Michael Jannett says
Love these matrices. Keep em coming.
I love the Willard quote regarding earning/effort.
Pr Michael Jannett Thanks Michael!
Wow this really touches me I’ve been so lost and try to except grace but never feel like I am really excepting it, because I struggle so much with spiritually growing I know now I’m not putting the effort! Thank you so much I will do my best to be fruitful and productive thanks
Brad Lindberg says
I came across this post this morning and I’ve been wrestling with it all day. I want to get fully on board with you here, but there’s something not sitting quite right with me. I come from the more liberal end of the Lutheran spectrum and GRACE tends to be priority #1 around this part of the Body. I’m also aware of Bonhoeffer’s call to not fall into the trap of Cheap Grace, which is what I hear you steering us away from.
As I’ve pondered and prayed today I’ve come to the conclusion that my struggle is with the word “need” when talking about grace and effort. “In fact, it seems we need to take action if we are going to remain inside the grace being offered to us.” Maybe I’m being overly picky here but I struggle to say we “NEED” to take action. I agree that it is a most excellent idea. However, if grace truly is the work of God alone then it is possible to be held in the grace being offered whether we take any action or not.
So what am I missing?
Ben Sternke says
I think it’s a question of telos, Brad. Behind your question about whether or not we “need” to take action is the question: What is God’s grace and our action UNTO? What are we saying is the telos of the relationship?
Most of the time (because of our Reformation hangover) we are thinking of “salvation,” by which we mean 1) not here (heaven), and 2) not now (future). I’m talking more about God’s grace changing us HERE and NOW. I’m thinking of 2 Peter 1, for example, where *actions* are urged (add to your faith…) toward the TELOS of your faith not being “unproductive.” I’m way more interested in how to say yes NOW to God’s grace so that my faith produces fruit than I am in the technicalities of who’s going to make the “final cut.”
Salvation starts today, in other words! And action is urged all over the New Testament, and I’ve never seen anyone grow in their faith unless they took disciplined action to respond to grace. Part of our problem is the “Reformation hangover” I mentioned earlier. We are so allergic to “works” because we’ve got a salvation-by-works “bogeyman” in our closet. If we go back further, we find that discipline and action were a totally normal part of almost every Christian’s faith.
Adeola Plumptre says
Good teaching and correction for me. I think in my previous thoughts on Phillipians 2:12-13 because one is focussed on one thing(grace), one then misinterprets it. I seem to see the same principle in Ephesians 2:8 ,since faith tends to involve action.